This promises to be a busy year for IT at St Paul’s School in leafy Barnes, west of London as our year long search for a replacement Management Information System is reaching a climax.
We're now looking at a major project to replace around half of our servers with a virtualised solution - backed by a dual Storage Area Network - is currently under negotiation; the new Head of ICT, an evangelist for Web 2 technologies, is being ‘broken in’.
St Paul’s is one of the nine leading public schools that were the subject of Lord Clarendon’s investigation into private education in 1861, along with Eton, Winchester, Harrow, Westminster and Shrewsbury. St Paul’s is, of course, much older than that, having been established by John Colet (whose picture adorns this blog), Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, in 1509. Yes – our five hundredth anniversary is to be celebrated in a couple of year’s time.
Though the school was originally housed in the shadow of the cathedral itself it is now in its fifth set of buildings – shortly to be replaced by the sixth. The second home was made necessary by the loss of the original school in the Great Fire of London. Subsequent moves – culminating in the present rather unpleasant 60s' buildings south of the river by Hammersmith bridge – have been the result of the inevitable requirement for increased space. The current Masterplan – which involves a complete rebuild on the current site to buildings more suited to an institution of the stature of St Paul’s – will naturally also have a considerable impact on the development of IT in the school.
As an independent day school, a charitable institution, St Paul’s might be dismissed as a refuge for ‘posh’ boys with rich parents. In actual fact it is more than anything a home to very bright boys, as its constant position near the top of the dreaded league tables attests. Alongside the building masterplan is an equally ambitious strategy to move towards a ‘needs-blind’ policy which will allow bright boys from all backgrounds to gain a St Paul’s education.
Clearly this environment calls for an IT provision in keeping with the status of the school. For the first time in decades recent years have found independent schools struggling to keep up with the state sector in this regard, with large amounts of money being thrown at IT provision in the latter. I hope that this blog will give an interesting insight into the progress of this ongoing process.
St Paul’s School runs a relatively large number of servers, each providing a specific and limited set of services which include all of the usual culprits. The big advantages of running many small servers are that they are individually inexpensive and can be sized appropriately. They can also be added, removed or redeployed with a minimal affect on other services.
The downside is the management overhead. This has been exacerbated in recent years by the explosion of different storage requirements – multimedia teaching materials, video streaming, computer music and art project requirements, Management Information Systems, Virtual Learning Environments, content managed intranets… Given that our servers have a replacement cycle of four years we find ourselves repeatedly juggling storage space and having to impose quotas to keep a lid on demand.
The longer term solution must be the Storage Area Network; a pool of storage that can be dynamically allocated to whichever server has need of it. The school’s IT Committee agreed our proposals to implement such a solution and we aim to roll it out over the summer holidays.
The new Head of ICT raised an interesting question. Should we be looking at web based storage? Given that the solution that we have proposed will cost us a large sum of money - in our terms at any rate - should we not consider purchasing storage as and when needed from the web? This question caused serious head-scratching and some rapid online Google-based research. Amazon’s S3 looks promising on the surface and the costs are certainly impressively low, but would it really be possible to build an Internet based storage solution for the whole organisation.
As far as we are concerned the answer must currently be – no! S3 is primarily aimed at web-application developers of course and use as general storage is probably not really feasible, though I did notice one or two interesting Webdav front-ends. The real problem is that the very simplicity that enables Amazon to market the service at the price that they do means that it lacks some – for us – essential features. There is no backup mechanism for individual files and folders - and we spend a fair amount of time restoring files that have been deleted accidentally, by staff as well as by boys.
Alongside the increased flexibility one of the big aims for our storage project – and also the reason that it will cost as much as it does – is increased resilience. Disaster recovery is an issue that taxes schools as much as other organisations these days and we are having to plan accordingly. Our storage design incorporates mirrored SANs in our two server rooms. If we were to trust to the web for storage we would be entirely at the mercy of our links to the Internet. Though reliability is pretty good it is a matter over which we have little control. We would, of course, also be entirely reliant on a commercial service which might at any point be sold off or closed down, and for which the costs might change dramatically.